Lok Sabha Elections 2024 | The wins between the lines: Rashid, Singh & Khalsa

Is the victory of controversial candidates in J&K and Punjab really representative of a turn towards extremism or does it reflect growing disillusionment of the public?
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 22:07 IST
Last Updated : 08 June 2024, 22:07 IST

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The 2024 Lok Sabha election has thrown up three ‘controversial’ winners: The first, Amritpal Singh, the leader of a faction of Waris Punjab De, who fought the election for the Khadoor Sahib constituency in Punjab from Dibrugarh Jail in Assam; the second, Sarabjeet Singh Khalsa, the son of one of Indira Gandhi’s assassins Beant Singh, who won from the Faridkot constituency in Punjab; the third, Abdul Rashid Sheikh, popularly known as ‘Engineer Rashid’, who won the North Kashmir constituency in J&K, while incarcerated in Tihar Jail on charges of terrorist financing. The more fervid imaginations have seen this as a resurgence of support for terrorism and separatism in Punjab and J&K. 

One commentator notes, for instance, “Amritpal’s victory could well turn out to be the most significant political development in the border state, indicating the return of the Khalistani ideology after four decades.” A prominent politician from Maharashtra, stinging from the comprehensive reverses his party suffered, queried rhetorically, “Does Pakistan now have to send terrorists from across the border to our Parliament?”

The truth is that the ‘Khalistan ideology’ and ‘Kashmiri separatism’ have been lurking in the background continuously for the past few decades, and have periodically and opportunistically been seized by various elements, including mainstream political parties, when it appears to suit their transient purpose. It is Khalistani terrorism that has substantially been held at bay in Punjab, even as the Pakistan-backed jihad in J&K is running out of steam. Armed violence threatens the state; within a democratic framework, the ideas that may underpin such violence — separatism on grounds of religious identity, or the ‘overthrow’ of the ‘comprador-bureaucratic-capitalist’ state that the Maoists seek — do not.

Terrorism thrives on operational successes. Overground workers, sympathisers, supporters and voters, are all secondary to waves of terrorism that keep these movements alive. When armed violence dominates a theatre, these elements may be useful facilitators; when such violence is contained or collapses, there is little these agencies can achieve, even if they secure access to the inner halls of Parliament.

Let’s take an example from Sri Lanka: Several Tamil political parties, their leaders and Members of Parliament, among others, remain sympathetic to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and continue to commemorate its martyrs, including its leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, even through the years of a ban on such remembrance services under the earlier Mahinda Rajapaksa government. Within the country, however, LTTE terrorism remains very dead, and Tamil separatist politicians are an integral part of Parliamentary politics in the country. 

Ambiguity, moreover, is the very essence of politics. While the public seeks black and white judgements — terrorist or patriot, ISI agent (Inter-Services Intelligence agent) or Sikh reformer and anti-drug campaigner — the reality is far from unmixed.

As journalist Praveen Swami notes, “The story of Engineer Rashid is suffused with grey.” Crucially, Rashid is no stranger to electoral politics, and has twice been a member of the then-state’s Legislative Assembly from Langate, in 2008 and 2014. His presence in the state’s legislature gave no succour to a movement that was already rapidly losing ground.

By 2012, it is useful to recall, terrorism-linked fatalities in J&K, at a total of 121 (data from South Asia Terrorism Portal) had fallen to their lowest since 1990. 

Indeed, the ‘terrorist’ tag, applied to these three fresh members of India’s Parliament, is itself suspect. While all three have been inclined to take up issues that align with some elements of hard-line identity politics (something that leaders of most mainstream parties do today), there is little evidence that the label of ‘terrorist’ can strictly apply. 

Rashid may be the exception since specific charges of financing terrorism have been laid against him. Significantly, he was charged with supporting terrorists in 2005 as well, but all charges were subsequently dropped.

As for Amritpal Singh, much of his meteoric rise in Punjab came mere months after his return to the state after a long hiatus in Dubai. Apart from criminal charges relating to a case of abduction and assault, and to the storming of the Ajnala police station, there is little to support the charge of terrorism. 

As I have noted earlier: “All that has actually been officially disclosed by the police till now is that Amritpal’s possible Pakistan ISI connection and foreign funding would also be investigated. This fairly modest assertion has been transformed into frenzied and seemingly authoritative claims that Amritpal is linked to the ISI, to drug and weapons traffickers and to prominent Khalistani terrorists, and to increasing drone crossings from Pakistan; and that he had received vast sums of money from abroad.”

Apart from the fact that he is an assassin’s son, Khalsa has no ‘terrorist’ connection, and no criminal record. He does, of course, engage in Sikh identity politics, highlighting issues such as the Beadbi (sacrilege) cases, the Bandi Sikhs (jailed Khalistanis) and the activities of the Dera Sacha Sauda. But these are issues that several ‘mainstream’ leaders exploit as well. 

Public sentiment

Crucially, the engagement of such elements in democratic politics does not represent a ‘capture’ of democratic spaces, but rather an admission of weakness, a failure to dominate through force, which is what radical and extremist elements seek. Only rarely, when terrorist violence has become overwhelming, can the democratic ‘capture of power’ become a significant secondary tactic to legitimise the outcome of an armed insurrection. That is a culmination, not a preliminary probe exploration, except in the possible case of majoritarian extremism, where democracy may, in fact, pave the way to the seizure of power. 

The election of Rashid, Singh and Khalsa, moreover, does not represent any extraordinary revival of support for extremism or terrorism among the publics of Punjab and J&K. Rather, they reflect growing frustration, disillusionment and anger at the establishment and political parties. In voting for these ‘radicals’, the public is not expressing any support for their ideas or platforms, but is, rather, lashing out at those who are seen to have betrayed their mandate in the past.

It is useful to recall that, just two years ago, the Khalistani separatist Simranjit Singh Mann had won the parliamentary byelection from the Sangrur constituency – an event that was, at that time, greeted with comparable claims of an imminent ‘resurgence of Khalistani extremism’. Mann placed third in the 2024 general election from the same constituency, more than 1,76,000 votes behind the Aam Aadmi Party winner, Gurmeet Singh Meet Hayer.

Rashid, Singh and Khalsa will each enter Parliament after taking an oath under India’s Constitution. It remains to be seen whether Rashid and Singh will continue in jail, but any engagement in extremist or criminal activity will continue to be closely scrutinised. It is the conduct, both of these individuals, as well as of the larger political fraternity, that will determine whether they eventually work within the embrace of India’s democratic framework, or are pushed towards extremism.

(Ajai Sahni is the Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi)

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Published 08 June 2024, 22:07 IST

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